One of the best things about my recent trip to Iceland was being able to self drive through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. And although I didn’t have enough time for the epic Ring Road (which is more than a solid reason to go back any time soon) I got a good sense of how it is to drive in Iceland during the cold season, including a small snow storm, rain, clear skies and only 6 hours of daylight per day.
So, what is it like to drive in Iceland in Winter?
Amazing! Beautiful landscapes, easy to drive and they simply don’t know what a traffic jam is, in Iceland. I had heard that it could get a bit crowded in the Golden Circle due to the many tourists following the same route, but I ended up in empty parking spaces with just two or three cars in Thingvellir National Park and no one at Akranes lighthouses. It’s the good side of low season, where most tourists prefer to travel on guided tours instead of renting a car.
The bad thing about driving in Iceland? Time is not easy to handle. You start thinking that, if there is a 90 km/hour speed limit and your destination is 90 kilometers away, you can make it in just an hour. WRONG!
Why? First, you’ll want to stop everywhere, to see the sun rise, for those funny horses on the side, to get a glimpse of that amazing fjord, to… every way you look at, there’s an amazing sight and they are all there to stop you on your way. Also, you’ll have to slow down for snow, to try to understand the road signs, for a herd of sheep crossing the road…
Best tips for driving in Iceland
- Know the numbers of the roads you will be using. The main road (the epic Ring Road) is number one, then there are secondary roads with two digits and then three digit roads (they start with the two digits of the secondary road they start from) and F roads. The less digits, the better the road and the more chances it will be paved.
- Check the road conditions on road.is before and during your trip (they update road conditions continuously from 7:00 AM to 10 PM, daily) and the live cameras in vegasja.vegagerdin.is by road number.
- Check the weather on vedur.is and safetravel.is for alerts like avalanches or storms.
- Know your strenghts, if you don’t know how to drive on Snow, don’t drive on snow, turn around and find another route.
- Wear sunglasses and be careful when turning left or right, the sun is low all day long and you could get blinded by the sun every time you turn.
- Get a car you feel comfortable driving. A 4×4 or snow chains might be a necessity if you are driving on roads with more than two digits and when driving to the North. They do clean the roads constantly, but there’s a chance that you get there before the snow team does. Or that the weather is just simply bad.
- F roads are closed in winter, so avoid any plans that involve going up the mountains and always follow the traffic signs.
- Make sure sure you won’t run out of gas, you might need it in case you get stuck in a snowstorm. Most gas stations are around towns and you’ll need a credit/debit card in many of them.
- Stock on groceries, snacks and bring some water with you. You might find a couple of places to eat at on our way, but most of them are seasonal and on unpaved roads.
- Parking is free everywhere but downtown Reykjavik. Although it becomes free again after 6PM.
- Beware of sheep, they can suddelnly cross your path since they can roam free. I’ve heard of reindeer, but didn’t see a single one.
- Don’t trust your GPS, humans are better! In Iceland many places share the same name, so you better ask for instructions on how to get to non-touristic spots or specific locations.
- When changing from one road to another, slow down, you might be changing from an Asphalt road to a gravel road.
- Upload the 112 Iceland App for sending a location in case of emergency and send your route to Safe Travel if you are planning a route outside the golden circle.
- Finally, tunnels and pay tolls are there for a reason: to save you time and winding roads. But you will miss some amazing scenery on your way. Sometimes you have to choose, and it’s not easy :)
Choosing a car and a car rental
I won’t lie you here, I love to drive, but I was scared that I would be needing to rent a 4×4 to get where I wanted to go. I have little experience on driving with snow and 4×4 are just way bigger than my VW at home.
So what I did was search through Kayak.com, set alerts for cars that would be best for different road conditions and 100% refundable and check the weather forecast and the road status to see which one I should choose. I ended up with an Opel Astra from an european rental brand, which was more than enough for my Golden Circle tour, snow included.
The good thing about driving in winter is that you can get great cars for a lot cheaper, from both local and international rental companies. But you still need to take a look at the “extras”:
- Gravel protection. Some people say it’s unnecesary, and that is true if you are only doing the Golden Circle. But it is a good thing to consider if you might be doing a different itinerary or you want to explore more. I ended up going through a couple of gravel roads and it made me feel more comfortable knowing all damage would be covered.
- Loss, theft and damage. Well, I’ve already told you how safe it is in Iceland, so you won’t probably need this extra at all. You might need it for suddenly appearing sheep, but if you keep your eyes on the road and drive carefully you will be fine.
- Sand and ash protection. Hopefully you won’t need it. Everybody remembers the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and all the mess, and that’s the reason why they put this extra, but there is a small chance that a volcano would start throwing ash at you. Some agencies add Snow to this extra, which you might need in winter.
- Navigation system. As I told you before, you better ask for instructions than follow a GPS. And, you already have one on your cell phone.
- Illimited mileage. My car rental only had 100 kilometers per day with an extra cost of €0,11 per kilometer (or illimited mileage for extra 6 euros per day). What it ment was that if I did more than extra 50 kilometers per day I would be saving with the illimited mileage. Just to get an idea of what you would need, the golden circle is (aprox, different routes may vary):
- From Reykjavik to Blue Lagoon: 49 km
- From Blue Lagoon to Geysir: 80 km
- From Geysir to Thingvellir: 48 km
- From Thingvellir to Reykjavik: 40 km
So by just covering the Golden Circle you are already used your standard mileage + 20 km. Add the trip from the airport to the hotel and back and some extra trips and there you go!
- Internet to go. You could get this one or an extra sim card with data at Reykjavik. My friends told me there was free Wifi everywhere, but since you will need internet to check vedur.is and road.is every once in a while, I do recommend it. I used it a lot.
Winter tyres are always included (by law), but if you can ask for snow chains or similar, do it. You never know.
Oh, and most cars are manual, to drive automatic make sure you order one (they are bit more expensive and usually bigger cars).
Basic driving rules in Iceland you should know
- Some roads have asphalt, others are gravel roads, and some are half and half, but they are not identified on any specific way (what I’ve found is that roads with less digits are better than ones with longer numbers). And then, there is F roads (mountain roads), where you can only drive with a 4×4 and which are closed in winter. Driving off-road is totally forbidden.
- Sealbelt is mandatory for everyone in the car and children must use safety equipment.
- Lights must be on, all day long. Most cars have them on by default.
- Speed limits are:
- in populated areas 50 km/hr and 30km/hr in residential areas
- on thruways 60 km/hr on thruways
- outside cities and towns: 80 km/hr on gravel roads and 90 km/hr on paved roads
- Finally, there are blind hills and blind curves both in major roads and single line roads. You should slow down since they are really blind. They are marked with the sign below.
- And there are single line bridges. The basic rule to cross the bridges is that the car closest to the bridge has priority, but it’s always better to wait and see what the other one does.
Getting to where you want to go: basic orientation and reading Icelandic signs
Iceland is usually split into 9 areas; Reyjkavik and Southwest, West Iceland, the West Fjords, North Iceland, north-East Iceland, East Iceland, Southeast Iceland and the Highlands. The Golden Circle and Keflavik airport are in the Southwest and South areas.
If you like to explore, the names of the places usually tell you what you can find in the area: -fjord=fjord, -vik=bay, -höfn=harbour, -vatn=lake, -jökull=glacier, -laugar=hotspring…
Also, the roads usually tell you which way is the next big town (Selfoss, Akranes), the landmark or the natural area (Hvalfjördur), the number of the road and the kilometers away. And, like in the picture below, they also mark whether there is a tunnel (Akranes 1).
Note that there are two signs on each direction. The road with a dotted line means that you are approaching that road. The one with an standard line means that you are in that road.
And every once in a while there is a road sign that says “information ahead” or a tourist information sign. Well, don’t expect a tourist point but something more like this:
Although they migh be helpful, I just chose to ignore these signs and follow the numbers. I got everywhere I wanted just fine :)
This post has its origin on the #KayakHacksIceland challenge, where Kayak invited 7 travel bloggers from across Europe to visit Iceland on their own and tell their own personal experience. Each blogger has designed her/his weekend in Iceland with total freedom, using Kayak to choose every aspect of their trip (dates, hotel, activities…) With only one thing in common: 10 challenges to overcome with the help of Kayak as a travel planning tool. The result? 7 different visions of Iceland – 7 different trips to Reykjavik. You can watch all the pics of the challenge and the participants on Instagram, or follow the trips with #KAYAKHacksIceland